Petra Shepherd enjoys the Caribbean ambience and completes a magnificent personal challenge
Two Islands, one paradise, so says the tag line for the sister Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis and there’s no denying they both are very beautiful and very unspoilt. However, it was the water between them, a 4 km stretch known as the “narrows” home to an annual swimming race that was my main reason for visiting the islands. The 13th Annual Bente Weber Memorial swim, to give it it’s official name, took place this year on Easter Sunday and welcomed 166 open water swimmers from all round the world, from neighbouring Caribbean islands to as far afield as China, along with a complete, novice yours truly.
Reaching the all-important half century is often an excuse to set yourself a challenge, so a year on from this milestone birthday and as a keen swimmer, the swim was to be my test. The swim from Oualie Beach (pronounced “Waalie”) ) on Nevis to Cockleshell Beach on St Kitts can be done by anybody who is reasonably fit with the oldest swimmer, Mark Krakower, an energetic 72 year old from California, completing the race in under 2 hours.
The challenge part being not only the distance but the currents and waves but there were enough older swimmers taking part to warrant a 50 + category with male and female 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes of a coveted stone turtle awarded to those first past the finishing post. However, I was there to complete rather than compete, for the sheer pleasure of swimming in warm tropical water accompanied by a multitude of marine life including turtles and stingrays. It’s a swim that would appeal to not only serious swimmers and athletes but those like me who want to take it slowly, very slowly in my case, I swim breaststroke. There’s even an assisted category using fins and snorkels.
With a range of great sporting events and activities both St Kitts and Nevis provide something for sports enthusiasts, active travellers and athletes alike. One of the best hiking activities to do in Nevis is climb the 985m Nevis Peak through dense rainforest. Local guides fill you in on all the local fauna and flora and you’ll probably spot a few vervet monkeys on the way.
However, there are also plenty of gentle guided walks to explore waterfalls and historic sugar cane plantations. You can’t get away from the fascinating history of the islands and the link to sugar. St Kitts famous ‘Sugar Train’ is the Caribbean’s only scenic passenger railway, using tracks originally built to transport sugar. The tour takes approximately 2 1/2 hours to circle the island along the coastline and offers a unique perspective on the island’s culture, people, views and history. Among the majestic scenes that unfold along the way are Brimstone Hill, abandoned windmills and chimneys from old sugar estates, bridges and a canopy of rainforest vegetation along the slopes of Mt.Liamuiga, the dormant volcano that is the island’s central peak. A choir in traditional dress serenades train passengers (mostly cruise ship passengers) with folkloric tunes and sugar cakes and to complete the sugar rush, complimentary pina coladas.
Over in Nevis, we stayed at Montpelier Plantation, a luxurious boutique hideaway built around one of the island’s original 18th century sugar plantations. The romantic and historic 300 year old sugar mill has been converted into the only restaurant of its kind in the world. The original mill is completely intact with the well-trodden floor and hand-cut round stonewall making it wonderfully atmospheric. Montpelier Plantation is one of those wow hotels, perfect for romantic history buffs (it witnessed the marriage of Nelson to Frances “Fanny” Nisbet in 1887) to those just wanting to get away from it all (Diana took the boys to stay here in 1992). The decent sized pool made an idyllic venue to train for my swim, somewhat bettering the local leisure centre I’d been swimming in the weeks before.
However, let’s be honest most people come to the Caribbean for the beaches and the two beaches that were the start and finish of my swim were without doubt two of the loveliest on the islands. Laid back Oualie Beach has great sunset views over St Kitts whilst Cockleshell Beach has equally stunning views over to Nevis along with a perfect crescent of white sand and calm and shallow water.
Cockleshell Beach is also home to Reggae’s Beach Bar, by no means exclusively reggae. The music is perfectly pitched and mixed and never intrusive. Radio 2 fans like myself will enjoy relaxing on the sunbeds on the near deserted beach listening to a mix of reggae and show tunes.
Nowhere else in the Caribbean will you find such gorgeous Plantation Inns, a sense of history and a whole host of adventurous activities on offer and if a midlife challenge appeals, you could do worse than competing in the annual cross channel swim.
http://www.nevisisland.com/ has information on Nevis
http://stkittstourism.kn/?gclid=CNSZs8a8_cQCFUfkwgodXLcALg has information on St Kitts